January 11, 2013 at 1:00 am

Vincent Goodwill

Clippers, Thunder loom as main challengers to Heat for NBA supremacy

Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers are tied with the Thunder for the best record in the NBA. (Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

It isn't quite yet midseason but the dawn of 2013 is a good time to evaluate the NBA season to date. The NBA champion Heat are struggling as the dog days begin, but nothing compares to the plight of the L.A. Lakers, who were expected to deliver filet mignon and thus far have brought fish filet to the table.

Here's the contenders and pretenders thus far.


1. Miami Heat — Last I checked, the Heat still have the league's best player (LeBron James), a top-10 player (Dwyane Wade) and an underrated star (Chris Bosh). Being 7-8 on the road is simply a champion going through regular-season boredom and not some sign of impending doom come May and June.

"The problem for the Heat isn't playing the Lakers or Oklahoma City Thunder, they'll be ready for games like that," said two-time champion and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas in a recent conversation with The News. "It's all these games against the other teams, who you don't have to get up for. They'll get through it and they'll be there when it counts."

The Heat are getting pounded on the boards, and perhaps team president Pat Riley will look into acquiring a true big to help out, taking the load off James, whose streak of consecutive 20-point games to start a season ended Thursday night.

2. Los Angeles Clippers — Not too many expected to see the Staples Center stepchildren rise over the usually-elite Lakers, but their presence on this list is no fluke. Point guard Chris Paul is a legit MVP candidate, a maestro in the form of predecessors Thomas and "Showtime" orchestrator Magic Johnson.

Post merger, those were the only two point guards to be the unquestioned leaders on championship teams and Paul is elevating himself into that strata, with Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford riding shotgun.

Best record in the league, second-highest point differential and this squad is so good, top to bottom, one forgets veterans Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill are still on the shelf. One forgets Donald Sterling is the owner. One almost forgets Vinny Del Negro is the head coach, and when the vets return, his first test this season will be doling out minutes on the deepest team in the league.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder — As well as the Clippers have been playing, the Western Conference champions are a half-game behind them for best record in the NBA entering Friday night.

Kevin Durant has raised his game to yet another level, on pace for the hallowed 50-40-90 mark (field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage) reached by only five players in the past 32 years.

He's taken the heartbreak of last year's loss in the Finals and improved to the point where there's no regular-season malaise surrounding the Thunder, despite the departure of James Harden.


1. Los Angeles Lakers — What a mess. Despite Kobe Bryant putting up astronomical numbers for someone with his level of NBA experience (17 years), it still isn't enough to overcome the Lakers' lack of depth, injuries and the inept coaching of Mike D'Antoni, who can't seem to find any use for All-Star Pau Gasol.

Their 15-20 start is unacceptable for a team with such stars, and with Dwight Howard approaching unrestricted free agency this summer, one has to wonder where his flimsy and immature mind is at the moment, considering he isn't healthy and wanted to be in Brooklyn in the first place.

But this start lies at the feet of VP Jim Buss, who didn't want Phil Jackson back in the building, and D'Antoni, who can't seem to get out of the way of his own ego — in the form of his precious system, one that's won how many championships? Zero.

It'll stay that way this time around, too.

2. Boston Celtics — While they're not a mess, and they will be heard from before the Heat ultimately wind up in the Finals, the C's window appears to have slammed shut when James put together his tour de force performance in Game 6 of last May's conference finals.

Hovering slightly above .500, a year older and relying on two 35-year-olds (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce) to rev it up every night is proving to be too great a task for the Grumpy Old Men.

Rajon Rondo is just as effective and ornery as ever, but they're last in the league in rebounding, a true precursor for playoff success given how extra possessions are magnified.

3. San Antonio Spurs — Why the dependable Spurs? Because they aren't better than the Thunder and Clippers. Yes, they're just a game behind for best record in the NBA.

Yes, Tim Duncan is experiencing a revival of sorts when it looked like he was winding down in the past two years.

But they haven't been to the Finals since 2007, with their age and playoff mileage appearing to work against them. They appear to have finally crested.